Trumpeter Lennie Johnson was at his playing peak in the late fifties and early sixties, but even then he was well known in the business and little known outside of it—the proverbial “musicians’ musician.” He’s another one who never got his 15 minutes of fame.
Johnson was born in Boston on October 2, 1923, and died there on October 7, 1973, barely 50 years old. We first hear of him in the early forties, as one of Tasker Crosson’s youngsters. He also formed group with altoist Tom Kennedy in 1942. He entered the army in April 1943, but I don’t know where he served or if he played in an army band. After his discharge, Johnson returned to Boston.
Johnson was with Jimmie Martin’s orchestra in 1948-49. Hi Lockhart, who played beside him in that band, said Lennie was “the high-note man, the power in the section.” Those same years, he worked with Jimmy Tyler at Wally’s Paradise (more on Tyler here) and they were a good match: rooted in swing, experimenting in bop, working out their own modern approaches. When Sabby Lewis reorganized his band in January 1950, Johnson was part of it, and he was with Lewis on and off through 1953.
On May 5, 1958, jazz came to the small screen as The Jazz Scene launched on the commercial station WHDH-TV.
Hard as it is to believe, jazz was a regular feature on network television in the late fifties. In 1958, Garry Moore and Steve Allen each hosted the Timex All Star Jazz Show, Benny Goodman headlined a special called Swing into Spring, Billy Taylor hosted one series, The Subject Is Jazz, and Bobby Troup had another, Stars of Jazz.
All of these programs were hoping to duplicate the success enjoyed by The Sound of Jazz, broadcast by CBS in December 1957. Shot in black-and-white, with no elaborate sets, whirling dancers, or celebrity hosts, the show simply presented the musicians, in casual dress and settings, blowing. The artistic directors, Nat Hentoff and Whitney Balliet, kept the focus on the musicians and their music. It was jazz at its spontaneous best, and none of the shows that followed could match it.
John McLellan, Boston’s one-man jazz media machine in the 1950s, was born in Shanghai, China, on April 7, 1926. For ten years, McLellan was the most prominent jazz advocate in the Boston media, with programs on commercial radio and television, and a column in a daily newspaper. He was a good spokesman for jazz—intelligent but not smug, respectful of his readers and listeners, and attracted to honest and well-played music from across the entire spectrum of jazz. Nothing irked him as much as fakery and closed-mindedness.
WHDH radio hired McLellan while he was an engineering student at MIT in 1951. He started with a half-hour program on Sunday evening called The Top Shelf—and the program director told him not to mention “jazz” on the air because it might frighten away the listeners. It didn’t, and despite tepid support from station management, the show’s popularity grew and McLellan got more air time. The program ended in February 1961. In the mid-fifties, McLellan also broadcast a “live from Storyville” show on Tuesday nights on WHDH for three years.
In August 1957, McLellan began writing a twice-weekly newspaper column, “The Jazz Scene,” for the daily Boston Traveler. “The Jazz Scene” continued until September 1961, some 400 columns in all. I could not have written The Boston Jazz Chronicles without “The Jazz Scene” and its nonstop news, reviews, and interviews. It covered the week-to-week life of the Boston jazz community, from high-school bands to Storyville, for four years. Those columns remain an invaluable record.